Last week I quoted a great piece by Annie Murphy Paul on the importance of analogies (and, by extension, broad knowledge for making analogies) for innovation. That piece left me thinking about one of my favorite analogies for what knowledge does for our ability to learn. Knowledge is like a spider’s web—the bigger your web (i.e., the more knowledge you have), the more new knowledge sticks to it. Credit here goes to Jessica Lahey, so I’ll gladly let her explain:
Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Indo-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera’s jealousy to Hercules’ labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by.
And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Prometheus unbound.
Of course, as Lahey knows well, we all start building our webs long before college. The more opportunities we have to learn, the bigger, stickier, and finer our webs will be. Lahey is making sure her children—and students—build webs that even a Darwin’s bark spider would be proud of:
My youngest son, Finnegan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.
This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”
Spider web at sunrise courtesy of Shutterstock.
Now, a new study, published in the April issue of Cognition, shows the early stages of web building. By 19 months, babies are already starting to use what they have learned to acquire new vocabulary. While the Cognition article is well worth purchasing, the summary by Northwest University’s news team offers a good overview:
Even before infants begin to talk in sentences, they are paying careful attention to the way a new word is used in conversations, and they learn new words from this information in sentences.
For example, if you take an infant to the zoo and say, “Look at the gorilla” while pointing at the cage, the infant may not know what exactly is being referred to. However, if you say, “Look! The gorilla is eating,” the infant can use the word that they do know—“eating”—to conclude that “gorilla” must refer to the animal and not, for example, the swing she is sitting on.
The zoo scenario mirrors the method the researchers used for their experiment. First, infants at ages 15 and 19 months were shown several pairs of pictures on a large screen. Each pair included one new kind of animal and a non-living object. Next, the objects disappeared from view and infants overheard a conversation that included a new word, “blick.” Finally, the two objects re-appeared, and infants heard, for example, “Look at the blick.”
“After overhearing this new word in conversation, infants who hear a helpful sentence such as ‘the blick is eating’ should look more towards the animal than the other, non-living object,” said Brock Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern and lead author of the study. “We show that by 19 months, they do just that. In contrast, if infants heard the new word in an unhelpful sentence such as ‘the blick is over here’ during the conversation, they don’t focus specifically on the animal because, after all, in this kind of sentence, ‘blick’ could mean anything.”…
“What’s remarkable is that infants learned so much from hearing the conversation alone,” said Sandra Waxman, senior author of the study, the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.”
Between research like this, initiatives like Too Small to Fail, and advances like the Common Core standards calling for “content-rich curriculum,” perhaps eventually we’ll have a society in which all children have excellent opportunities to build their webs.